Tom Peters On Excellence: Perils of standing pat

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A COMPETITOR claims that Howard Sosin, master of some of Wall Street's newest and most complex financial products, is 'always doing things an order of magnitude more complicated' than anyone else.

The Wall Street Journal says of the financier: 'As his business grew, and rivals began to muscle in on the turf of AIG Financial Products, (Mr Sosin) always managed to push on to new territory.'

What's the big deal? Someone gets a hot idea. He makes big bucks. Others smell opportunity. They invade his newly won turf. He upgrades. It's Day One in Economics 101.

But things have changed. The pace at which rivals invade has increased dramatically in any market you can name. (Some telling statistics from a recent Harper's Index: time between the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978 and the first made-for-TV movie about it, 513 days; between this year's cult tragedy in Waco and its first TV movie, 34 days.)

As a result, the rate at which you must upgrade has increased. More important, the nature of upgrades has changed - that is, a modest tweak to your restaurant theme or your software is not enough to fend off intruders. You must, as does Mr Sosin, constantly engineer shifts of an order of magnitude.

All this struck home during a recent discussion with old friends who run a business north of San Francisco. The three started out about six years ago, and their high-end sporting goods store knocked the socks off the competition. The business became the keystone in altering the tone of a neighbourhood with a raggedy collection of shops.

My friends welcomed the occasional snoopy visitor who tried to figure out what made them tick. Then, about 18 months ago, an energetic challenger opened up a rival store a mile away and leapfrogged their operation. The newcomer seems to be taking business away from them at a pretty good clip. (I had guessed that the two were in separate markets. I was wrong.)

My friends are still passionate about their work. They chose the business based first on love, second on its commercial prospects. And over the years they have steadily added new wrinkles.

Moreover, they are prepared to keep at it. But they are not prepared to abandon their time-tested formula, more or less, and aim for a quantum leap - a Sosin-like 'order of magnitude' departure.

Given their record, I'm rather certain they could come up with a chunk of capital, if necessary, for a wholesale repositioning. What is missing is an emotional commitment. What is present is denial.

Oddly (because all three are very bright), they just don't seem to get it. They have worked like hell to secure what they created, which was more than any of them had dared to dream of - financially or artistically.

They still unflinchingly put in yeomanlike hours. So why should they, in effect, have to scrap their baby and do something brand new?

Their problem is one that is faced by IBM, Apple, Procter & Gamble, Kodak and many others, as well as by virtually every receptionist, insurance-claim processor, physician, engineer and executive. This nutty world now demands wholesale reinvention of darn near everything and everyone, every few years (three? five? seven? two?). It's not enough as individuals just to upgrade our skills constantly. It seems as though what is called for is routine re-potting. We must branch into whole new fields and assume nothing less than a four-career career, or something close to it.

So what can we do? For my friends, I suspect the choices are: (1) take a six-month (minimum) sabbatical and do something weird, and see if that whets the appetite for genuine revolution; (2) bring in, as an equal, a general partner from somewhere rather far afield, even if it significantly dilutes hard-won equity; or (3) sell the business and avoid future emotional and monetary losses. Each strategy constitutes strong medicine, but will less astringent remedies do?

The challenge for someone trudging through a corporate career is similarly daunting. She or he, or you, might, for example: (1) launch a three-year night class programme aimed at acquiring a complete new set of skills (with or without your employer's support); (2) angle for a lateral or even downward job shift that lands you in a different arena; or (3) seek a thankless high-risk assignment (such as opening that subsidiary in Moscow), a job that forces you to sink or swim.

All these strategies take guts. Or do they? Look around and you will see that the people and organisations who have sat on pat hands or puttered round with incremental improvement have been punished in recent times. And the forces at work which administer that punishment have barely been loosed.

Bitter medicine or heady challenge (depending on your beliefs). What's the alternative?

TPG Communications